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Mike Bussell & Chuck Horbert (Mad River Explorer 17)
Jim Cole & Billy Luther (Mohawk Whitewater)
Day 1: The Invasion of Canada
When we arrived at our put in on Lake Memphremagog in the City of Newport, VT, I went to find a place to park; one lot allowed overnight parking only on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays; the other allowed it only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and (you guessed it) Saturdays. So I went to the police station, which is right there on the main drag. The lights were on but nobody was home. I called it quits after ringing the bell four times and shouting the obligatory "Hello?! Anyone here?!!" parked in one of the lots, crossed my fingers and left the car to its fate.
Back at the ramp, we quickly loaded up, and Mike hoisted both the U.S. Flag and the Provincial Flag of Quebec. We got our aquatic nuisance stickers (required for all boats entering the lake) despite the fact that the boat washing station was out of commission, possibly for weeks. As we paddled north, skies were partly cloudy with a light wind from the southwest…perfect! And there were very few boats on the water…we saw maybe 4 boats on the U.S. side of the lake. We saw no one in their yards or on their docks except for a young woman playing with her children on a small beach.
We reached the wharf at the Canadian border and, as expected, no one was there. In fact, it looked like no one had been there in decades. So Mike lifted the yellow phone and whaddaya know! Someone answered! But whoever it was could not figure out where we were. We tried everything. "Lake Memphremagog"; "The Canada/Vermont Border"; "North of Newport." We even took the radical step of actually reading the big sign identifying the station as "Leadville Wharf." It wasn't in his computer! So he checked us in at a place called Highwater and called it good. We then answered a lot of questions (No the boat doesn't have a name. It doesn’t have a registration number either. Yes, we have a lot of booze) and were on our way with our verification numbers. So if you plan on smuggling anything into Canada, it is still evident why Lake Memphremagog has been such a popular route over the years.
Over the line, it was a different world. Half the province of Quebec appeared to be out in their boats. The other half were lounging on their docks or hanging out in their yards. We proceeded steadily north into the shadow of Owl's Head Mountain, keeping one eye out for rogue boats and the other eye out for Memphre the Lake Monster. Neither troubled us. Around 1:15 in the afternoon we arrived at Perkins Landing to no fanfare at all. There is a nice stream that flows between the boat ramp and the beach, providing a perfect place to land the canoes. We laid claim to a table in the picnic area and spent the rest of the afternoon lurking around, eating lunch, drinking some beers and waiting for our campsite to clear out. Officially, no camping is allowed at the picnic area beach, but they will allow canoeists who are traveling along the NFCT to set up camp after the beach is closed. Respect the neighborhood if you camp here so future travelers can enjoy the same convenience!
Perkins Landing was packed with boat trailers, and several families were enjoying the swimming beach. Wet Willy, who is not named after the boxes we’d be seeing later in our trip, went for a swim. He and Jim later took a walk up to the store, and came back reporting a steep climb for the canoes. Mike walked up later, and reported that it wasn't really that bad. I was satisfied to wait until the next day to assess it for myself.
The beach closed at 5:00, and by 6:15 nearly everyone was gone, including all the boat trailers. We had supper cooked and camp set up by 7:30. There was a little rain forecast for the night, so I set a tarp up. There was a moment of panic when Mike couldn’t find the pack that had the coffee, sugar and his Jetboil stove, but he found it 20 minutes later packed inside another pack. He’s not used to such efficiency.
We were later visited by (just a best guess here) Marcel Gilbeault. He didn't like Narragansett Lager or Sailor Jerry, but he drank them anyways. His reaction to his first swig of the Sailor was perfect: he took a couple swallows, his eyebrows shot up under his "Golf Owl's Head" ballcap, his eyes bugged out, and he let out a wheezy expletive. He had travelled all over the country, but had never been to the U.S. When asked if he had seen Memphre, he shook his head in disgust. "I don't believe that crap" he claimed in his heavily accented English. He stated several times that "I don’t come down here every day" in a manner that suggested he was down here almost every day. This became the mantra of our trip, and is sure to be repeated along many of the remaining sections of the NFCT. We liked him, but once we took the Sailor away he lost interest in us and headed home, checking the garbage bins for returnable cans.
Now, there are no campfire pits in the picnic area, but Mike "The Fire Master" came prepared with a fire pan he had made out of a GMC pick-up hubcap. We found plenty of twigs and sticks lying around the beach and blazed up a small fire. That was one of the nicest, most well-behaved campfires I’ve ever had the privilege of hanging around. We reviewed the days ahead in excruciating detail. At around 11:00, we turned in for the night. Fifteen minutes later, the rain started. It poured all night.
Mileage for Day: 11.6 miles
Day 2: Have you taken your canoe for a walk today?
I hardly slept all night, thanks to the din of the downpours on my tent and the wind in the trees. I waited for the rain to calm down to a drizzle before exiting the tent, and found Mike and Jim already wandering about, making coffee, and putting off packing. I made myself a cup of Joe, and wandered over to the harbormaster's shack to get out of the rain a bit, and made my acquaintance with Richard, who was very interested in our story, having met quite a few other NFCT paddlers already. I traded stories with him until there was a lull in the rain, and then took the opportunity to pack up my tent and gear.
Everything got stacked and organized under the tarp. Every once in a while, the four of us would cram under it with the gear if it started raining particularly hard.
Soon, everything got transferred to the harbormaster’s shack to await the pickup by Frank of Canoe and Co., with whom I had made arrangements to shuttle out gear to his place on the Missisquoi River. While waiting, we also readied the boats on the portage carts for the first leg of our day’s travel, a long morning walk along the "Grand Portage," a 5.7 mile hike along gravel roads over a height-of-land to get to the Missisquoi.
Frank showed up on time with his car and even a canoe trailer, just on the off-chance that we had changed our minds about walking. We hadn’t. Besides, after loading his car with our gear, there would have been no room for any of us! He was surprised at how much stuff we had. I suppose he is used to through paddlers, who understandably economize on their gear. We short-section paddlers can afford a little luxury and weight.
After Frank left, we didn't waste any time getting on with our trudge up the hill. We stopped, of course, at the Jewett Country Store for a break and to pick up some items for the road. Jane (Jewett?) recognized Billy from an earlier scouting visit, and we all enjoyed talking with her. I was amazed how quickly and fluidly she would switch from English to French as other customers came by. It definitely had the feel of a different country.
Different or not, it was all wet. We headed north, and then took a left on the gravel Chemin Peabody, climbing all the way, putting my raingear to good use. It was hot and sweaty work and we were all very glad we had unloaded much of our extra equipment on Frank. Happily, the slope started going downhill a lot sooner than I had expected. In fact, it turns out that, if one is headed west, 3.4 miles of the 5.7 mile Grand Portage is downhill! Also, the rain stopped at about the time we started our descent. Sweet! My respect for through paddlers, who have to head in the other direction, increased quite a bit. Well, at least those of them that walked it. I wouldn’t want to be walking that in the other direction on a hot day, no way Jose. We were offered a ride at one point, but we had nearly completed the whole thing by then, so on we walked.
I guess we all have our ways of dealing with long portages. For me, I end up having some song run over and over in my head, and I’ll merely walk to the beat of the music. Irritatingly, it is often some silly childhood song, or a Sousa march, that I can’t get out of my head. Mike, it turns out, had used Google Earth to split the walk into nine "segments." As we passed the "divider" between each segment (usually a road intersection), he'd announce it: "Four down, five to go." I'm not sure what Jim or Billy do… I'll have to ask them.
We reached the North Branch Missisquoi (aka "Missisquoi Nord") a little over two and a half hours after we started, which wasn’t half bad! The put-in at this bridge, though, is a bit of a trick. The easiest access, on the northeast corner, is very clearly posted against trespassing, even for those of us who can’t read a lick of French. Forget about the northwest corner…ugly as a hyena after being run over with a Land Rover and chewed on by vultures. The southwest corner could have been done, but would have involved a lot of brush busting. So we went with the southeast corner. This required a lift over a guardrail down onto the steep roadbank, where you had to be careful not to slide down into the barbed wire fence inconveniently located less than a boat-width downhill. The boats were then shuffled along the fence, down the bank and under the bridge for a muddy launch into one of the muddiest rivers I have ever been on. Mud or no, it was sure good to be back on water!
The river presented easy paddling by fields, woods and the occasional house. We quickly reached the dock access at Secteur Nautique, where the caution signs quite graphically illustrated what could happen downstream to your boat. Up on the carts went the boats again, and up the hill we pushed, emerging in the village of Mansonville. In deference to Billy, who was still a bit upset that we had not started our last two mornings with a proper breakfast, we went in search of a lunch spot, and found the Cantina Memphre on the Chemin de Vale Perkins, where we discovered "poutine", an original Quebec dish consisting of french fries covered in beef gravy and mozzarella cheese. We also found out that hot dogs on toasted rolls are called "toasties". It was all good. I love new cultures!
Our hunger sated, we continued along Route 24, finishing the 0.8 mile portage through town to what appears to be a recently constructed and improved access back to the river, complete with interpretive signs and parking. Quite nice! The river was moving along quite well…it had the look of having risen quite rapidly with the overnight rains, choked with silt and with lots of floating debris. We chased a few families of mergansers down the river, and even spotted a mink. Shortly after we passed under a bridge, we met the main branch Missisquoi River, and then floated past the "Camping Carrefour" sites on river-right. Note to downstream paddlers: go past the first few docks to the one that is marked for camping check-in's.
Soon enough, we found the entrance to Canoe & Co. on river-left, with a beautiful stone access from the river. We were greeted by a nice set of chairs and a chicken which, believe it or not, turned out to be a "Rhode Island Red" from our home state. Odd coincidence! Frank came down from his house-on-stilts, showed us around, pointed out where he stacked our gear, and sat with us to trade stories. We met his wife (or wife-to-be, I wasn't too clear on that) Rachel, who was also very personable, and interested in our stories. As we talked, the river continued to rise a few inches.
A little later, after we had set up the tents and eaten, Frank's dog Maggie started to chase his chicken. The chicken must have sensed that Mike knew a thing or two about chickens, because before we knew it, it was on his lap! As Maggie continued to show interest, it proceeded to his shoulder and then his head! Good times.
Fortunately there were no chicken manure episodes.
Jim was pretty tired by the time we all went to bed. In fact, we woke him up at the campfire when a very large, loud, bright freight train came rumbling by right past Frank's house, a mere 150 feet away; he did not remember this the next day. He did hear the one that rumbled by at 5:30 the following morning, though.
Mileage for day: 16.0 (including 6.5 miles of portage)
Day 3: Re-entering the States and finding out we aren't valid.
One of the nicer things about camping at Canoe & Co. is, of all things, their outhouse. Not only does it have running water and a flush toilet; it has electric lighting too! Luxury we were not used to while on the trail.
We were up and packed pretty quickly, and at 9:00, after re-filling our water bottles, we bid adieu and au revoir to Frank and Rachel under sunny skies. Although it had not rained overnight (other than a brief sprinkle as we went to bed) the river was no lower than when we had arrived previously. It still cranked along, muddy as ever, past a rather monotonous landscape of tree-fringed fields with occasional views of the mountains in the distance.
It seemed like no time at all before the pace of the river picked up and the bridge at the U.S. Border station came into view. The landing on the bank on river left past the bridge is a bit tricky; the eddy is small, there was no beach (not that day, anyway) and there was a steep bank to climb to get up and out of the river. From there, the path to the rear of the customs building and around to the front is obvious. We turned the corner to find a border agent leaning a chair against the wall of the building, reading Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle". We gave him our passports along with our "we-just-came-down-the-river" story, but he didn’t seem to know what to do about it. Probably a newbie. His partner came out, took our passports, leafed through them, and promptly declared three of them invalid. Wha??? When we asked what was wrong, he handed one passport to Mike and said, “You tell me.” Fortunately, Mike was able to quickly deduce that three of us boneheads had forgotten to sign them. Doh! The agent produced a pen, the three "illegals" signed their names, and we were finally welcomed home. After about a half hour of paperwork check in, picture taking, and generally chewing the fat with the two border agents (during which no one else arrived to check back into the U.S.) we resumed our trip.
This is about when we became cognizant of just how much water there was in the river. Based on our pre-trip scouting days before, we expected the rapid below the bridge, and the braided channels between there and Richford to be nearly dry, requiring some dragging. We were happy for the rain, but didn’t expect it to make a significant difference. Unbeknownst to us, I had received an e-mail back home from another section paddler who knew we were on the river that said “I’m sitting here at work, watching the Missisquoi River gauge go vertical. Hope you guys are OK”. In fact, over the previous 24 to 36 hours, flows in the river at the East Berkshire USGS gauge spiked from about 320 cfs to around 1950 cfs! Over six times the volume per second!
But again, we did not know this. All we knew is that there were multiple routes through that first rapid, and the one we picked was smooth and sweet. The power of the water was evident. Shortly afterwards, the river obviously narrowed down, and we came upon the dancing standing waves of Stevens Mills rapids. We hadn’t even scouted this rapid because none of us was the least bit concerned about it. Well, both boats ended up meeting a couple hefty waves in this solid Class II drop and taking on quite a bit of water. Wahoo! We pulled over immediately so we could bail out the boats.
Over the next two or three miles we enjoyed easy quickwater and Class I rapids, speculating as to what the ledges in Richford looked like now. When we had scouted it three days prior, most of the ledge and rocks were exposed, with a bony but boatable channel right down the middle. Mike was prepared to run it blind, figuring we’d take on some waves and be through it in no time by using the channel we scouted previously. I anticipated it was probably runnable, and perhaps even easier, but said I wanted to scout it. Jim was of the same thinking. Billy just wanted to get a bite to eat in Town. So, upon arriving at the take-out at river-left for what we expected to be an optional portage, Mike stayed with the boats, and the rest of us walked up into town.
When my eyes finally saw the ledges downstream of the bridge, my jaw dropped and my brain seized. Now we all had a really good idea of how high the river had risen. All of the ledges we had walked on, and all of the important rocks we knew we had to avoid, were gone. In their place was a raging Class III rapid populated with big waves and hungry holes that stretched a good 300 feet. We walked down the street and around the corner and sneaked through a yard to get onto the river-right bank to scout out a route. We all agreed that with empty boats, the run would be fun and wet, but with loaded boats, many unpleasant things could happen. Jim felt we could line the boats along the right hand bank, but the margin of error, in my opinion, was too small even for that. A big neon sign was flashing in my mind: "PORTAGE".
The return of the rain forced us to head back to find a lunch spot, and we found "The Hot Spot" diner right at the main intersection north of the bridge. As soon as we sat down, it commenced to pour. More encouragement to portage, in my mind. Jim left ahead of us to break the news to Mike that we were walking around, and by the time Billy and I made it back to the boats, some gear had made it up the bank. We chain-ganged the packs up the slope, and hauled the canoes up what had to be one of the worst take-outs on the trail. It was steep, slippery, obstructed and narrow, not user friendly in the least. And the rain, which was still coming down pretty hard, didn’t help matters.
After a quick stop at the convenience store on the way to restock beer, the roll through town was easy and uneventful. At Davis Park we found a put-in that wasn’t much better than the one we just left, with a steep slope of broken concrete and poison ivy. But we took out time, and watched our step, and made it back onto the river in one piece. At any rate, the put-in and take-out points for the portage through the Town of Richford should definitely be the sites of some trail improvement parties. (Note: later in the year, vast improvements were made to the spot that we put back on the river.)
At this point, I was feeling pretty down. The rain and a bit of wind were harshing my mellow, and having to portage around Richford ledges due to the massive flow increase really threw me off balance. I got quiet and simmered, preoccupied with thoughts of how the higher flows would affect the other rapids we had to contend with downstream. Mike, on the other hand, was totally at the other end of the happiness meter, chattering away happily, singing, pointing out a bunch of crap I would normally have been rather interested in. It was an interesting dynamic. Ultimately, Mike’s good mood won out and pulled me from the brink.
We found Magoon Ledges, which were Class II and easily bypassed to river right. Soon we were paddling along Route 105. The so-called "Twin Bridges" that carry 105 over the river puzzled us since they do not look anything alike. A few lazy bends later, a huge eroded sand bank appeared on river-left, and we knew we had reached Doe campsite. Fortunately, one does not have to scale the sand cliff to get up to it. Just past the bank, where the forest comes down again to the river, we found the arrows pointing to a long trail that winds itself through a floodplain wetland and up the spine of a long esker. At the top of the hill we found a log book, a fire ring, and a picnic table. And a lot of very tall vegetation! Beautiful site, with fantastic views of the river, but it sure could stand a mowing.
The sun came out as we sherpa'd all our gear up to the campsite. Cans of beer and a bottle of Sailor Jerry made an appearance. Tents were slowly set up. Mike and I clowned around trying to balance paddles on our chins. Then, at about supper time, the rain reappeared. We scattered for the tents like cockroaches caught in the kitchen light. Billy was almost instantly snoring as I updated my journal. Mike, who's good mood refused to quit, recruited Jim into figuring out a tarp set up for this essentially tree-less site. At some point, the rain lured me to Napland.
Mike, who understandably was not going to have his extra energy wasted on a bunch of lazy-ass tent lizards, roused Billy and I out of our tents at around 8:00. The rain had subsided down to an occasional spitting, and my eyes gazed in wonder at the incredible tarp set up over the picnic table. It consisted of a 10 x 20 tarp set over a cross-piece sapling that was lashed to and supported by two other saplings, all secured by corner ropes that were staked to the ground with short lengths of wood. A fine piece of woodsmanship! And a great place to cook our dinner, which we did, thanking Mike and Jim between mouthfuls of food.
Mike wasn't done yet. He got a cheery fire going in the fire pit, and we sat around in our chairs (except Billy, who’s veteran folding stars-and-stripes chair gave up the ghost at the last campsite, leaving him to scavenge available buckets or other unguarded chairs) drinking beer and speculating about the days to come. Then the Mike B. fireworks show started. The day ended with a succession of sparkling fountains and bottle rockets illuminating the ferns around the site.
Total Mileage for the day: 17.2 miles.
Day 4: Turning a Two-Portage day into a One Portage Day
Thin clouds gave way to mostly sunny skies as we awoke atop the bluff at Doe Campsite. Mike, who was a regular energizer bunny yesterday, had hit the wall. He was not feeling so well in the morning. So, we took our time packing things up and humping all the gear down to the boats. We all chipped in to make sure Mike only had to make this trip once. From the looks of the water it looked like the river had dropped about 6 inches overnight, but still had plenty of flow.
It was a breezy day, with occasional upstream gusts, carrying with them the essence of many cows. We took our time to the breached Samsonville Dam, landing on river-left practically on top of the old dam remains. After having seen the ledges upstream in Richford, I had arrived resolved to portage around this drop no matter what I saw (there is a farm road along river left that can be used if need be). But I was wrong. While we were too far away to see for sure, the river-right side of the rapids looked pretty clean. Big, but clean. It didn't matter, though. Scouting along the river-left bank, we could see a route that went just right of a ledge and hole at the top, and then quickly moved left to hug the left bank the rest of the way. A couple rocks required fairly minor moves to avoid them. Mike and I probed the line, and Billy & Jim followed suit, with no problems to speak of.
After the first main drop, the river goes around some islands and through a few easy rapids. Owing to our left-side route, we stayed far left, boat scouting and running some easy Class I rapids. After the islands, one can either stay far left and scratch a way through (or make a mid-way move to the center to go right of a big island, which requires a run through a slot in a big ledge); or one can move to the right and run The Meat. We chose the carnivore route. There is one small drop that we ran on the right, and we stayed generally to the right through a small pool before the last big drop. Mike and I kept the probe position again, weaving our way through the ledges with a minimum of fuss, glancing off one rock. Billy and Jim followed, but took a much more significant hit on the rock Mike and I brushed, sending Jim flying forward, hurting his knee. They didn't hang up for long, though, and joined Mike and I at the foot of the rapid, up on the mid-stream island, for a breather.
It was a fairly windy paddle into Lawyer's Landing and the portage around Enosberg Falls. Here we met the only other paddlers we had seen on the river since Canada, a couple kayakers, one of whom was clearly a novice at entering a kayak. The steep embankment at the put-in (river-left) didn’t help him at all, but eventually he was able to flop himself in without dumping, and able to make room for us to get the canoes and gear out. We had already determined that we were not going to tangle with the ugly put-in on Duffy Hill Road, opting for the easy roll down St. Alban's Street to the optional put in further downstream (river-right), which is near a nice grassy field with an easy put-in to the river. After a trip across Rte 105 to a Mobil Mart to restock water and beer, it was good to lounge for a while on the grass and eat lunch.
The breezy weather, and the farmland, stayed with us the next four miles to Abbey Rapids, but there was no rain. As we passed the North Sheldon bridge, we hunkered down into kneeling positions to run the one mile of Class II Abbey Rapids. This was very easy to boat scout, and we all ran them mostly clean, with a minimum of emergency maneuvering. At the foot of the rapids, we kept a sharp eye out for Lussier Campsite on river-left. It was a good thing we had real sharp eyes, because it was easy to miss; the signage was mostly hidden behind sapling growth. In fact, we saw the log-book box and picnic table before we saw the sign. The saplings have since been trimmed to improve the view of the signs.
We quickly set up camp, with most of us choosing to set tents up in the tall grass of the field behind the pines and hemlocks. Billy and Mike promptly went to Napland. Jim and I hung around, gathered firewood, drank, did some campsite maintenance, drank, updated our journals, set up a tarp, and drank. As previous through and section paddlers have noted, the picnic table has a fallen white pine leaning over it. This provided a ready supply of dry firewood. Overall, this is a very nice campsite.
About an hour after we arrived at the site, I noticed a group of paddlers headed upstream. Three kayaks and a couple canoes. Through Paddlers? Headed to this campsite? Closer inspection as they approached revealed no camping gear, however. And they continued on their way upstream, battling the Abbey Rapids. Maybe it was the local masochist's club.
It was a good thing we set up the tarp, because we got hit with a fast moving thunderstorm a little after dinner and had about a half hour of heavy rain. After that, it intermittently spit rain until the next morning.
Total Mileage for the Day: 14.2 miles
Day 5: Good Morning, Slugs and Snails!
When I awoke, it was raining lightly, but the showers stopped by around 7:00. Those of us who set up in the field were beset by hundreds of snails and slugs. Ugh! Gastropods started flying around the field like shrapnel as we evicted them from our rainflies.
Here's a useful tidbit for future visitors: The wet willy is located on the other side of the field, a little to the left (facing away from the river), under a big white pine. Look for a sign nailed high in the tree. Also, beware the poison ivy and stinging nettle all around it!!
We paddled many more miles of easy flatwater past many hundreds of acres of farm fields throughout the morning under a mostly cloudy sky, but the rain seemed to have stopped for the day. The portage for Sheldon Springs Dam came up sooner than we anticipated, being well before the actual dam, on river-right. In fact, we never saw the actual dam or the mill near it. The portage trail up the hill to the road was a little rough, but the portage carts managed it. Once we hit the road, it was easy rolling over pavement. From the trail leading from the river, one turns left down the road, and then right a short time later down the hydro-facility access road. The grade down to the turbine outlets was quite steep; we were all glad that we didn’t have to do this portage in the opposite direction!
The hydro-plant was releasing water, so we had some good flow through the ledges below. The first section of the rapid, to the right of an island, was pretty straightforward and easy. The second rapid, which is generally a two stage drop, is a lot beefier. After the first stage of it, which we ran far-right, Mike and I decided to eddy out to the left, towards the center of the river. Jim and Billy, who were following us, were initially going to run right through, but chose to follow us into the eddy at the last second, and had to paddle pretty hard to avoid getting swept into the last drop backwards, even though the eddy was HUGE. Phew! We ran the second stage down the right hand side too, staying just left of the biggest waves. Smooth run. We stopped for lunch on a small island just below where the river splits up into a couple channels.
Past this point, the riverbanks began to get a woodsier look to them, with larger chunks of forest dividing the farm fields. We saw a few houses as we approached East Highgate and, just past a small Class I rapid, we spotted a doe with a small fawn walking along the river in front of us.
Turning the corner, the bridge and rapids at East Highgate came into view. Having previously scouted these in low water, we decided to read-and-run this rapid as well, staying generally far left through it all, primarily to avoid the undercut remains of the old dam but also because it seemed to continue to give us a good route. After one turns the corner and out of sight of the bridge, most of the river flow goes right. There are a lot of rocks that way, though, in the middle of fast current. We decided to pick our way through the rocks and chutes along the far left, near the left shore, and it was generally pretty easy until the very last drop. Here, the river dropped between two off-set rocks, with the main flow headed into another large rock only about ten feet downstream of the chute. To run it, we drifted between the rocks with no speed, and just as we passed into the chute, I reached into an eddy on the right to start heading the canoe to the right of the last rock, and we then continued to paddle through the eddy, with Mike adjusting the stern as we came down, essentially “S” turning our way through. Not bad for a loaded pig of a boat. Jim and Billy came through clean as well, mimicking the moves that Mike and I had done.
It doesn't take long to reach the pond formed by the Highgate Dam. We found the portage trail on river-right around Highgate Falls pretty easily, although before setting off down the path, I introduced Jim to the total awesomeness of moleskin for blisters and cuts on his feet. This trail was pretty easy, if somewhat wet in places. It took us across a local road, and under some power lines. The cut-off towards the river access and Highgate campsite is very clear, with a very nice rock-lined path all the way down. The steps that have been installed down to the river are great! The campsite, however, was as basic as basic can get. There was sort of a flat spot off to the side of the trail. A couple landscape timbers, left over from the stairway construction, were lying about. Also, there was a pile of rocks nearby, also left over from the same project. No campfire ring, no wet willy, not even a picnic table.
But wait! At the bottom of the stairway, looking across the river under the power lines, what is that? Looks like a nice grassy spot with a picnic table and a porta-john. Might it have a campfire ring? It just might! A powwow was held, and Jim & Billy were recruited for a diplomatic mission to locate the landowner and sweet-talk him into letting us camp there. Mike and I watched as they paddled across, and took out. As they walked across the field near the picnic table, Jim pointed down and gave us the thumbs up. Interpretation: We have a fire ring! They then disappeared up a path. We waited a good fifteen minutes or so. As they reappeared, they gave no sign either way. But from the flatfooted gait and lowered shoulders we expected it did not go well. Sure enough, it turned out that the owner quite pointedly denied the request, even with an offer to pay. This did not stop Billy from trying to fool Mike and I as they paddled up, exclaiming "We're in boys! Pack everything up!" He didn't succeed.
So, we trudged back up to the flat spot and started making some improvements. The three landscape timbers were set up to form a bar and cooking surface. Mike and Jim set up tents along the path. Billy and I decided to climb up the hill behind the campsite to see what was up top. We found a VERY nice flat, wooded, clear area for tents, with a path leading out to the power lines. I took a walk out that way, found another timber or two, and laid one across the path to discourage any wheeled vehicles from racing down our way. I also got the crap scared outta me when a covey of ruffed grouse exploded at my feet, flying off into the woods.
By the time Billy and I had hauled gear up and set up the tents, Mike had the bar set up, and had built a small stone fire ring using the leftover rock. At this time, the skies seemed to be darkening a bit, so we also set up a tarp.
Jim and Billy decided to hike up to town to get more beer and water. They returned only with beer, having forgotten the water. So we filtered some with Mike’s new filter. Speaking of which, having heard previous reports of the poor water quality, three of us had decided early on to simply restock on water as we went through towns. This generally worked well for us, until this last night. But Mike decided to buy a water filter and try it out rather than carry extra water. He bought "First Need Deluxe" water filter from General Ecology. And it worked fantastic! Out of some of the muddiest, smelliest water I have paddled came crystal clear, odorless water. And as I am writing this about a month later without any sign of intestinal turmoil, it looks like it worked!
This being our last night, we raided our food supplies and pigged out. We kindled a small fire and downed a good amount of beer and Sailor Jerry. Off in the distance, for hours, the Mower From Hell worked at mowing the campsite across the way, occasionally stopping abruptly when rocks were encountered. This went on until well after dark. At about 10:00 we had a brief rain shower, so we felt justified in having put the tarp up. Jim was the first to stumble his way to his tent, and within a half hour we were all drifting off to sleep with the distant sounds of water rushing through the gorge below Highgate Falls.
Total Mileage for the Day: 11.4 miles
Day 6: Finally, a cloudless day
We finally woke up to a cloudless day. Not that we were complaining…aside from the rain on the Grand Portage, and a downpour as we walked through Richford, the rain never hindered or was a bother, coming as it did either at night or as brief showers while we were on the water. And the clouds we had every day saved us from slathering sun block all over ourselves.
But the sun block would come in handy today.
Jim was packed by the time I clambered down the hill. So was Billy, and Mike was almost done. I guess there is something about the last day of a long trip that gets people ready to get the hell going! It usually gets me going too, but not this time. I was taking it mellow, squeezing every bit of enjoyment out of the trip.
Eventually we were all packed. Since there was no wet-willy, we had to use cat holes, but enough about that. (Since this trip, a wet-willy and picnic table have been installed at this site.)
The put-in is a little tricky at high water. We decided to load the boats at the top of the stairs and just slide ‘em on down. Thank the Gods for Royalex! Just downstream from the campsite, the river splits off into multiple channels in a rather picturesque way. Pick a channel and go…they are all good.
It was a nice easy float under sunny skies. At about 10:30, we muckled up the boats and started cracking open the last of the beers. At about this time, we saw a beaver swimming up towards us. He dove before anyone could get a hand on a camera. We reached the overpass for Interstate 89, and I have to say, whoever designed that bridge must have bribed their way to an engineering degree. Most bridge supports are oriented with their narrowest dimensions in line, parallel with the current. Not these. During floods, the full force of the currents must hit these supports broadside. I bet the eddies on the downstream side are impressively frightening in flood. Just downstream is another over pass with a canoe access. We stopped there to stretch our legs, but didn’t see anything impressive enough there to keep us from moving on.
The portage around Swanton Dam, which begins practically at the lip of the dam on river-right (well not really…you have about 10 feet to drift before washing over) and continues across the road to a park, was pretty easy. We hung around Marble Park for a little bit, and admired the canoe sculpture, which unfortunately appears to be succumbing to some vandalism. The put-in down the eroded banks is a bit tricky...watch your footing here. Soon we were on our way, floating onwards with our last portage behind us. Billy and I shared the very last beer. Sweet!
There were a lot of houses as we passed through Swanton, but these started to drop off as we got closer to the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge. Great Blue Herons, Green Herons and Kingfishers were abundant. At one point, there were five Kingfishers fighting it out over one fallen dead tree. The river is wide and flat, and the sun was pretty warm.
When we arrived at Louie’s Landing, Billy promptly stripped to his shorts and dove in for a swim. After a group picture, we somehow strapped both boats on the racks and stuffed all of our gear and the four of us into Jim’s Toyota van. We made the long drive back to Newport, frequently getting stuck behind logging trucks and farm tractors. In Newport, we transferred Mike’s boat and our gear from Jim’s van to my Forester, and then headed right into town for a righteous Chinese food feast and a little souvenir shopping. Thus ended our latest NFCT adventure.
As a side note, one of Mike’s bags of Mountain House freeze-dried Chicken Teriyaki made it through its third major trip without being eaten. We all, including Mike, are certain it is relegated to permanent back-up status, and may well still be with us as the final miles of the NFCT pass under our hulls.
Total Mileage for the Day: 9.7 miles
Total Mileage for this segment: 80.1
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